Asarah BeTevet – the Other Tragedy


The fast day of the 10th of Tevet symbolises the first of a series of events which led to the destruction of the First Temple; that day marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Persian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.

‘Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the 11th year of King Zedekiah.’ (Kings II, 25:1-2)

The prophet Yeheskel [Ezekiel] was instructed by God to turn this day into a day of memory:

‘O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.’ (Yeheskel 24: 2)

Yet the date also marks an event for which the people of Israel fasted not one day but in fact three, namely the completion of the Torah’s translation into Greek, ordered by Ptolemy.

The resulting translation was considered a tragedy. If you are familiar with a foreign language and enjoy watching films or TV series in the original version, you will know that things get lost in translation. In addition Ptolemy wanted to Hellenise the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. Not a catastrophe you might object.

But by moving the Torah from the House of Study to the Greek Library, the whole process of reading and studying Torah the Jewish way was threatened. Reading Torah is not merely about perusing an ancient text. Reading Torah involves a confrontation with what others have written and still write about it and how it has shaped their lives, not just their intellect. It connects us to the Jews of the past and the Jews of today, to their lore, wisdom but also difficulties and struggles. When Torah study is carried out the Jewish way, the learner is challenged and might be led to change in the process.

In Pirkei Avot (1:6), the sages do not tell us to ‘find a teacher’ but urge us to ‘Make for yourself a teacher’. They incite us to connect actively to a tradition that began at Mount Sinai and is still vibrant today in the Houses of Study as well as in its more modern versions. They encourage us to seek relationship, not independence and intellectual neutrality.

This Year’s Heroes


If you enjoyed last year’s post about my students’ heroes, you may wish to see who their heroes are this year.

– Coluche, he was a French comedian and actor. He is remembered for the Restos du Cœur – the charitable organisation he created – whose main activity is to distribute food packages and hot meals to the needy. (5 students)
– Martin Luther King Jr (4 students)
– Christopher Columbus
– Albert Einstein
– Michael Jackson
– Kelly Slater
– Two soccer players: Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi
– Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
– Barack Obama
– Neil Armstrong
– Frederik de Klerk
– Winston Churchill
– Nelson Mandela
– Charlie Chaplin
– Lady Diana
– Rosa Parks
– Emmeline Pankhurst

Tips for Language Learning on One’s Own


Have a goal. You feel you want to start learning a language or improve one you learned but fear you can’t remember. However if you just fancy learning a language without really knowing why, your enthusiasm will probably soon disappear. Learning a language is not very hard but it takes a little time.There are all sorts of good reasons to learn a language: a trip abroad, a book you want to read or a series you want to watch in the original version, family history you want to investigate… What is yours?

Find your own method. Remember how the way you revised for exams was different from the way your friends did, this still holds true. Try to imagine yourself working – with a book, on the computer, with your mp3 player – and find a method that suits your style.

Search the Internet. Whatever the method you have settled on, do some research before you spend your money. You will need to know the strong and weak points of the method you have set your eyes upon. Read what other people think of a language book on online bookstores and search inside the book if you can, visit the local university bookseller and talk with the shop assistants, type key words and see what people have written on forums. Some websites have a few free lessons before you are asked to pay, try them.

Take advantage of free language learning tools. There are lots of them on the web. They may not all be great but they are free. Here is a short list.

Set a specific time for your lessons. Don’t think you will work when you have the time, you may never start. Ten minutes a day is easier to find and much more effective than an hour once a week. Set this time for yourself and keep to it.

Get a dictionary. Whether you prefer a paper version or a smart phone app (some are quite cheap and good), you need a dictionary. You may also find it useful to have a small notepad where you write the vocabulary you acquire and which you can use as a revising tool every now and again.

Vary the sources. Once you start making progress, try to broaden the way you learn by incorporating authentic documents in your learning process. Follow a recipe in your target language, watch movies, read articles online, play vocabulary games…

Good luck!

Thursday Musings


– After reading a review of Day After Night by Phyllis I have decided to order the book. I have also just realized that Jewwishes reviewed it too last month.

– I got an email about Buy Nothing Day (which is scheduled to occur on a Saturday) as some French teachers seem to think it is great to teach our students about this (and why not). Interestingly enough though nobody on their site seems to realize that Judaism invented a weekly version about three thousand years ago and that millions of us still observe it today.

– As the head of the English Department in my school (a task which is not paid in this country), I wonder how I can communicate efficiently with my younger colleagues. Indeed they are aware that I send them emails but don’t seem to actually read them. They then ask me what I wrote and what they are supposed to do about a particular situation – our language assitant’s schedule being the latest example.

– Our language assistant, Abigail, has just arrived. She is from Southern England but studies French and English at Leeds University. She seems keen and friendly which will be a great asset for our students. It will also be nice for us teachers to have her around. Last year our assitant never turned up and never even told us she didn’t want the post. I only found out when I found her phone number (thanks to the Internet) and got in touch directly.

– Abigail didn’t take A levels, like most of her British peers, but took the International Baccalaureate instead. In addition to being tested in 6 subjects (one of which has to be a foreign language), a candidate must fulfill three “core requirements: Extended Esssay (something like or Project Work), Theory of Knowledge and CAS (Creativity, Action and Service). As an educator I like the idea of a rounded education based on both formal and more flexible learning and teaching.

Is this the kind of education you would have liked to have or something you would like for your children? Are you happy with what you were taught or what your kids learn?

Parshat Nitsavim


רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.

Look closely – I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil…

This passage (Devarim 30:15-19) is probably my favorite in the whole Torah as it beautifully encompasses what The Torah means for me: God has given us a set of rules so that we may live but he has also given us the freedom to make choices.

While reading Beyond Survival by Shimon Apisdorf, I came upon an insightful appreciation of these verses.

Ultimately, every significant choice we make is a choice between life and death. On Rosh Hashanah we not only pray to be inscribed for ayear of life, we also strive to commit ourselves to living the kind of life that fills our existence with goodness, spirituality, love and true human beauty – with life.

Parshat Ki Tetze


כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ; וּנְתָנוֹ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ.

When you will go out to war against your enemies, and God will deliver them into your hand, and you will capture its captivity.

This is what Rabbi Twerski writes about this verse:

Torah commentaries are unanimous in interpreting this verse as referring also to the internal war a person must serve against the yetzer hara.

The yetzer hara, evil inclination, is unfortunately something all of us must always fight against, a kind of constant battle. Besides in the month of Elul we are expected to be even more focused on our faults, regret them and strive not to repeat the same mistakes again.

Sadly as we grow up we also realize that we are continuously fighting the same battles and this may seem daunting and discouraging.

As if to make things worse, the first part of this line shows that our own willingness to engage in action must come first. No miracle will come from heaven, or elsewhere, unless we “go out to war”.

However the rest of this verse assures us that, as long as we are willing to defeat the yetzer hara in our lives, we are not alone: God will assist us. Progress is possible provided we make God an assistant in our efforts to be different and better people.

Parshat Ekev


י וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ

And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD thy God for the good land which He hath given thee.

Reciting the Birkat Hamazon, blessing after the meal, is a mitzvah written in the Torah and found in this week’s parshah.
We are mandated to recite this blessing after a meal which includes bread – since, according to Jewish law, eating bread officially constitutes a meal.

Numerous commentators have discussed the fact that we are required to say a blessing after a meal and not only before. Most have come to the conclusion that the Birkat Hamazon teaches us to be thankful. While it is easy to feel grateful when we are hungry and have a full plate in front of us, it is not so obvious once we feel replete.

Thus Rabbi Joseph Telushkin teaches that we should not take everything – life, sustainance, food – for granted and this is why we need to thank God several times a day, to remember that ultimately everything comes from Him.

Since our interractions with our fellow men are just as significant in God’s eyes as our relationship with Him, we should also be thankful to the people we meet every day and shouldn’t forget to acknowledge what they do for us and to express our gratitude whenever necessary. Maybe this is something we could try and focus upon while we recite the Birkat Hamazon this week.

What Is Your Chumash?


As I am reading about Devarim and trying to prepare posts on each parshah, I find that my own Chumash is a bit too light and doesn’t quite provide as much insight into what I am reading as I’d like to.

Therefore I am considering getting a new one. Ideas are of course welcome. Otherwise why would I write this post?

Tell me what you like about the edition you use and whether you supplement it with other commentaries. I reckon all your suggestions and opinions will be useful to other people as well.

Philosophy for French Students


Today is the first day of the baccalauréat, the academic qualification which French students sit at the end of the lycée (secondary or high school).

Here is a selection of the questions on which the students were expected to write an essay this morning. Each student has a choice between three topics : two in the form of a question and one text.

– Does language betray thought?
– Does objective history require impartial historians?
– Is it absurd to desire the impossible?
– Are there questions that no science can answer?
– What do we win in exchanging?
– Does technological progress transform man?
– An excerpt from The World as Will and Representation by Schopenhauer
– An excerpt from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke
– An excerpt from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Which one would you have chosen?




I moaned last week about being tired of teaching and of unenthusiastic students. I browsed the web and think I have found something I might like. Obviously I’ll need to improve my Hebrew before starting the course but the university offers this too.

It is the 3rd year of a university BA and is open to anyone who already has a BA in Hebrew, history or a foreign language. Here are the subjects taught as part of the curriculum.

– classical Hebrew
– linguistics
– grammar
– modern Hebrew

– classical Hebrew literature
– medieval Hebrew literature
– contemporary Hebrew literature

Modern Jewish Philosophy

Introduction to Mishna.

An optional subject – I am considering Yiddish.

What do you think?